In the early nineteen-sixties, Ford Motor Company took a run at propping up their cultural cachet through the acquisition of Italian automaker Ferrari, renowned for their sleek sports cars, including the vehicles that famously dominated the yearly twenty-four endurance race staged near Le Mans, France. The overture was not well received, and, according to the new film Ford v Ferrari, the humiliation felt by the Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts), squirming in the imposing shadow of his father as he ran the famed U.S. corporation, inspired a fervent — if fitfully supported — initiative to outdo Ferrari in the manufacture of an elite race car.
To mount the seemingly quixotic mission, a rising executive named Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) recruits Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), who a few years earlier became the first American to win Le Mans. Shelby assembles his team and immediately determines the only driver who could possibly race Ford to victory is Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a Brit with a reputation for combativeness. From there, problems mount. Every two steps forward of accomplishment are followed quick by a slip backwards, and only the gumption of real men can save the day.
It’s not just the presence of erstwhile stranded space explorer Matt Damon that calls to mind Ridley Scott’s The Martian. Above all else, Ford v Ferrari is about ingenuity in problem-solving, with a dash of low-simmer rebellion against capitalistic authority thrown in for good measure. The screenplay — co-credited to Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, and Jason Keller — crackles with an easygoing humor similar to the earlier film, and it couches its victories in the simple satisfaction of doing a task correctly. Director James Mangold handles the film’s many racing sequences with skill (Ford v Ferrari does an especially good job showing the extreme difficulty of the sport), but he’s even stronger in the less flashy moments of the narrative.
The element of Ford v Ferrari that revs the loudest, though, is the performance by Bale. Displaying an inventiveness that mirrors that of the characters, Bale gives his character an exciting vividness that makes it feel as if he’s found a way to squeeze and entire life into the confines of a performance dispensed across two-and-a-half hours of movie scenes. As was the case with his Oscar-winning turn in The Fighter, Bale brings his performance right up to the edge of overacting without ever quite tipping over in excess. He plays fairly broad strokes of anger and pathos while keeping the work contained enough to feel solidly, smartly real. Impressive acting is all over the film (in addition to the parenthetically named thespians above, all of whom are quite good, Ray McKinnon is great as an engineer on Shelby’s crew), but Bale is at another level.
There are problems with Ford v Ferrari. It is noticeably overlong, and a nervous attempt to come up with a satisfying ending pushes the film two scenes too long. In the competition for most woefully cliched character, it’s a dead heat between Josh Lucas’s snarling corporate executive and Caitriona Balfe’s tough-minded but nobly supportive wife. These intrusions distract from rather than negate the whizzing entertainment of the film. Like the car-building effort it depicts, Ford v Ferrari is a complicated, slightly compromised, and undoubtedly impressive success story.